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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: Just end rugby’s season now…declare it null and void

Last year's PRO14 champions Leinster.
Last year's PRO14 champions Leinster.

Three weeks into the general lockdown and a month into sport closing the gates, naturally a lot of us are getting a little antsy.

Some seem to be a little more impatient than others. Last week, Donald Trump had a teleconference with the commissioners and leaders of the major American sports.

It wasn’t disclosed in detail what was discussed, other than Trump’s desire to see full stadiums again. But the reaction of the major sports seems to suggest it was a lot more strident than that.

Within a few days, Major League Baseball – which was due to start it’s gruelling, 162-game season this week – leaked a frankly ridiculous plan to house all 32 teams in Arizona (where lockdown has been selective) and play games under a kind of mutual self-isolation.

When all the many issues with this bizarre plan started to be debated, MLB quickly and predictably walked it back.

A couple of days later, golf’s PGA Tour announced a new schedule with new dates for the three American-based major championships. This amounts to less of an actual schedule but more a fan’s wishlist.

The R&A, who run the oldest (and best) major and have no pressure on them from petulant Presidents, simply cancelled The Open for 2020. Don’t be shocked to find the other three having to do the same.

The NFL is going ahead with its draft next week but teams have to assemble soon for training camps and they’ve kept their cards close to their chest so far. The NBA has, wisely, ignored any pressure and said they’ll make any plans when it’s appropriate to do so – certainly not now.

We all want to see sport back (us who write about it do, acutely) but this kind of almost childish, primarily morale-raising nonsense is doing no-one any good at all.

For goodness’ sake, we’ve got a pandemic to deal with before getting round to this stuff.

But there’s another element behind premature preparations as well – the English Premier League’s rumoured plan for a closed-door finish to their season was nothing more than a grasp to hang on to TV and sponsor money, at the possible expense of the health of players, coaches and essential staff.

In rugby, just about everything in season 2019-20 has been wiped out. The Premiership, Top 14 and in some elements the PRO14 leagues are hanging on hoping to complete their seasons, but with every day that passes still in lockdown this becomes more and more fanciful.

Rugby is not like golf, you can’t just rock up and be ready to play at a safe level immediately or after a week or so of training after you’ve been in a month long lockdown.

Rugby squads playing even in June will now require a whole new pre-season if player care is to be maintained.

The PRO14 are talking about a reduced play-off schedule based on current positions, or simply a final between the two current conference leaders, Leinster and Edinburgh.

This is a particularly tricky situation for both of those teams. Edinburgh deserve some reward for their huge improvement this season, and they certainly deserve a place in next season’s Heineken Champions’ Cup.

The feeling in the squad is that they want some sort of tangible recognition for their canpaign. They face another season in the Challenge Cup and a start over from square one.

Leinster have won every game in all competitions this season. Naturally they want to finish that off.

It’s interesting to note that the four partners in the PRO14 – the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Italian unions – all declared their domestic club rugby seasons null and void.

It’s not an ideal solution in any case – there were clubs who had already been presented with trophies for winning league titles, and others who had been officially relegated – but in this case it’s simply the least-worst option.

And for my money, that counts for the big professional competitions as well. I don’t see any way the Gallagher Premiership, the Top14, the European Cups or Super Rugby are going to be able to bring their unfinished seasons to a normal conclusion.

Let’s face it, we don’t even know for sure yet whether it will be tenable to start NEXT season’s pre-season in rugby. Starting a domestic club season in late August as usual and a professional season in September (earlier if you’re the Top 14) is still very much in the balance.

The July international tours are surely unrealistic as well – perhaps a truncated Rugby Championship, or maybe a money-raising playing of the Bledisloe Cup, could just about be manageable later in the summer, but any cross-border sports event has major questions for the foresseable future.

Rugby shouldn’t be indulging childish optimism or trying to wring every last sponsor and TV penny out at a time like this.

The 2019-20 season is over, and as sad and unsatisfactory as that may be, it’s inevitable. Declare it all null and void, and let’s start the rebuilding once society is back and running itself at some semblance of normality.